“Better Off Ted” is the kind of quirky, deadpan comedy I really enjoy, and the first two episodes provide a good number of chuckles and a couple of good old-fashioned out-loud laughs.
Quirky, deadpan comedies, however, don’t have much of a track record on television in recent years, and ABC has struggled for several seasons to get a half-hour comedy to make a dent with viewers. So enjoy “Better Off Ted,” which premieres at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday (March 18), while you can.
There is a good deal to like. The show, from “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Life on a Stick” creator Victor Fresco, features a good mix of likable and likably weird characters, a knockout performance from Portia de Rossi and some welcome and amusing satire of corporate culture.
Ted (Jay Harrington, late of “Private Practice”) is the head of research and development for Veridian Dynamics, one of those giant companies that runs ads about all the things they do to make your life better without ever mentioning a specific product (funny fake ads for Veridian kick off each of the first two episodes). He oversees a group of scientists who do things like weaponize pumpkins and make mice (computer, not animal) that can withstand extreme temperatures. He likes his job, and he likes his people — but he doesn’t always like the people he works for.
Those people are represented by Veronica (“Arrested Development” alum de Rossi), Ted’s confident, tightly wound and astoundingly literal-minded boss. She’s a brilliant executive, provided she doesn’t have to deal with actual people, and her timing and the way she propels herself in and out of scenes is nearly perfect. It’s one of the best comedy performances of the season.
Ted’s point men in the lab are Phil (“Andy Richter” veteran Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett), who share ineffectual grievances against the higher-ups while producing the innovations Ted asks for. Newish co-worker Linda (Andrea Anders, used to far better effect here than on “The Class” or “Joey”), who has to test the products Ted’s team produces, also provides a possible romantic spark for Ted, who’s trying to balance his career and raising his daughter Rose (Isabella Acres).
The biggest thing missing from “Better Off Ted,” at least through the first two episodes, is a sense that Ted really cares that the company he works for is, not to put too fine a point on it, evil. Ted at least fights the good fight in the name of treating his colleagues with decency, but in the current environment it would be nice to see the company take it on the chin a little more.
That said, the jabs that Fresco and Co. do get in at the more-faster-cheaper corporate culture are good ones. Veridian is an amoral place, the kind of company that uses its employee child-care program as a labor pool (an effective running gag in episode two) and that thinks nothing of cryonically freezing Phil, “just to see if we can.” The fact that everyone who works there sees what Veridian does as (mostly) normal only highlights the absurdity of it all. And if it sometimes makes you shake your head as much as it makes you laugh, well, that’s OK too.
“Better Off Ted” is probably the most enjoyable new comedy to hit the air this season. I just hope enough people notice to keep the show alive beyond its brief spring tryout.
Here’s a scene from Wednesday’s “Better Off Ted” premiere.